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Submitted Literature

Notes From An Exhibition

By Patrick Gale

Review

In this complex novel about the impact of bi-polar affective disorder (BPAD) and creativity on family life, Patrick Gale explores his own demons, not least the death of his younger brother in a car crash and the suicide of a former lover, the bi-polar artist, Graeme Craig-Smith, who jumped in front of a train.  Gale achieves a codified mourning for these deaths in the novel and acknowledges the therapeutic benefits of this kind of writing in his short essay entitled ‘The Comforts of Fiction’.  In terms of Craig-Smith, he writes: ‘Like most suicides, his death stirred up relentless cycles of guilt and anger in me which not even writing this novel has put to rest.  But at least I got to weave my own sort of wreath for him.  Much is said about the consolation fiction brings to readers but far less about what it can give its writer.’ (pp.9-10).

In essence, the novel is the story of a bi-polar artist, Rachel Kelly, and her family.  The narrative focuses on the ripple effect of bipolarity on everybody around Rachel, the inheritance of mental health problems and inheritance-by-proxy of psychological issues caused by the strain of living with a close relative with this condition.  The novel is woven through several different perspectives and provides an insight into each character’s personal difficulties. 

As Gale unfolds the relationship between Rachel, husband Antony and their children we are presented with a kind of systemic case study of bi-polarity and its admixture of creativity and despair, an oscillation between asylum and home living.  When Rachel, rather mundanely perhaps, dies of a heart attack in her attic studio, her husband Antony pursues some of the genealogical gaps in his wife’s history and learns an uncomfortable truth.  Rachel Kelly is really Joanie Ransome, a ‘run away’ from a Canadian asylum who emigrates to find a new life in Cornwall by assuming the name of a fellow inmate and escapee who kills herself by jumping into the path of a train.   The representation of madness and its impact is detailed and extensive, yielding myriad views and perspectives on the nature of illness and the response of the family and wider society.  In fact, Gale effectively conducts a ‘grand-tour’ of madness, in particular BPAD, affording the reader an abridged version of a range of diagnostic or psychiatric perspectives, socio-cultural constructions and more personal accounts of the lived experience of BPAD, such as those arising from Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath’s biographer, and the bi-polar psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, both of whom Gale acknowledges as influencing his knowledge and understanding of the condition and its link to creativity. 

Prominent themes in the novel are motherhood, the heady mix of creative genius and mental debilitation, the nature of the asylum versus community living, and treatment of BPAD.  In terms of the latter, the novel is particularly ‘pharmacentric’, often referring to the management of BPAD and other mental illnesses or states through medication and discoursing on issues around compliance.  Indeed, the novel charts a shift from an early emphasis on ECT to a more contemporary reliance on achieving a ‘chemical balance’ as the treatment of choice.

Overall, Gale captures well the life of the artist as mother, her breakdowns and creative breakthroughs, in part through a series of notes from a fictional exhibition that head each chapter.

Key Themes:

  • Creativity and Madness

Reference: Patrick, Gale. 2007. Notes From An Exhibition. Harper Perennial, 2008

Reviewer

Professor Paul Crawford
Date Review Submitted: Sunday 3rd May 2009